Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Remembers The Papua Campaign (7/1942-1/1943) - Nov. 30th, 2003
Posted on 11/30/2003 12:00:39 AM PST by SAMWolf
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23 July 1942-23 January 1943
On 7 December 1941, Japan turned its war on the Asian mainland eastward into the Pacific. Simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, the Malayan peninsula, and other places surprised Allied governments and exposed serious weaknesses in Allied dispositions in the Pacific. At the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, Australia had sent most of its ground units to the British Commonwealth Forces in the Middle East. During the next two years the U.S. Pacific Fleet sent one-quarter of its ships to the Atlantic, and the U.S. Army continued mobilizing, although it would not be ready for an offensive mission until late 1942. Hastily gathering scarce units, the Allies tried to halt the Japanese at the Malay Barrier, the mountainous chain of islands stretching from Malaya through the Netherlands East Indies to New Guinea. But the pace and extent of Japanese conquests soon overran these preparations. The fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the bombing of the Australian city of Darwin four days later shattered the Malay Barrier. Australia and New Zealand lay virtually undefended.
The arrival in Australia on 17 March of General Douglas MacArthur, ordered from the Philippines by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, signaled the start of a new phase in the defense of the Pacific. Instead of supplying and supporting its Allies, the United States would commit its own troops to the effort to halt the Japanese. A major area command, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), was created in April with General MacArthur commanding. An international command, SWPA had separate land, air, and naval forces, with commanders drawn from the two major contributing nations: Australian General Sir Thomas A. Blamey for Allied Land Forces, American Lt. Gen. George H. Brett for Allied Air Forces, and American Vice Adm. Herbert F. Leary for Allied Naval Forces. Allied Land Forces would consist of two Australian and two American divisions. Recalled from the Middle East, the 7th Australian Infantry Division arrived home at the end of March; the 6th Australian Infantry Division, the next month. Most of the U.S. 41st Infantry Division arrived in Australia in early April. The U.S. 32d Infantry Division, originally slated for Northern Ireland, received new orders to join SWPA in mid-May with the rest of the 41st Division. Allied Air Forces would eventually consist of eight aircraft groups. Allied Naval Forces began with twenty-one surface warships and thirty-one submarines and could expect augmentation by American carrier task forces. Resupply of the Southwest Pacific Area would come from Hawaii through a line of island bases secured in February: Palmyra, Christmas Island, Canton Island, Bora Bora, Samoa, and the Fiji Islands.
Japanese Dead near Buna Mission, 3 January.
Working with the Australian Chiefs of Staff, General MacArthur prepared a joint estimate of the situation. The Allies agreed that the Japanese advance would continue and that it would soon threaten the Australian supply line as well as the island nation itself. As General MacArthur viewed the situation, the best way to defend Australia was to meet the Japanese on New Guinea, and the way into New Guinea lay through Port Moresby, a harbor on the southeast Papuan coast lightly garrisoned by Australians. Accordingly, in early April MacArthur directed the reinforcement of Port Moresby.
While the Allies rushed to strengthen Port Moresby, the Japanese acted on their own strategic assessment. They also considered Port Moresby the key to Australia. But before approaching the port city, the Japanese moved to finish a naval mission begun earlier. The Imperial Japanese Navy saw its strike against Pearl Harbor as only half of a two-part strategy. To secure exploitation of Burma, Malaya, and the Indies, the Japanese had to neutralize the British Eastern Fleet. For that purpose, a large Japanese naval task force left the southwest Pacific for the Indian Ocean in April. The Japanese succeeded in disabling the British Eastern Fleet, but in doing so they also gave SWPA an extra month to reinforce Port Moresby.
General Blamey tours the battle area with General Eichelberger (left). (DA photograph)
By 4 May, when a Japanese landing force embarked at Rabaul for Port Moresby, Allied air an) naval forces had grown to decisive strength. The result for the Japanese was a major setback. As enemy troopships and an escorting carrier task force approached the eastern end of New Guinea, they were met by two American carrier task forces. In the ensuing Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese Navy lost so many ships that the landing force had to return to Rabaul. Though they lost more ships than the Japanese, the Allies won a strategic victory in the Coral Sea: the enemy had to reschedule its Port Moresby landing for July.
The Japanese had barely counted their losses in the Coral Sea when they met a much more costly defeat. In an effort to take Midway Island and the Aleutians, the Imperial Japanese Navy put together a huge task force centered on four fast carriers. A unique message-interception effort code-named MAGIC enabled the Allies to learn of the enemy move toward Midway, and three American carriers were sent to intercept. In the sea-air battle that followed on 4 June, the Japanese lost all four of their carriers and hundreds of aircraft and pilots. The stunning defeat at Midway was more than a temporary setback. The Japanese Navy never replaced its carrier losses, and as a result its land operations thereafter suffered from a chronic shortage of naval and air support.
But two defeats in rapid succession did not end the threat to Australia. On 22 July a Japanese landing force under Maj. Gen. Tomitaro Horii slipped ashore at Basabua and made its way to Buna on the northeast coast of New Guinea. The landing itself came as a shock to SWPA headquarters, then considering the very same move. Even more disquieting was the discovery that the enemy had landed without air cover.
Anxious to take advantage of the victory of Midway, Allied staffs drew up an operations plan. Called the 2 July Directive, the plan laid down three tasks: 1. seizure and occupation of the Santa Cruz Islands, Tulagi, and adjacent areas; 2. seizure and occupation of the remainder of the Solomon Islands, Lae, Salamaua, and the northeast coast of New Guinea; and 3. seizure and occupation of Rabaul and adjacent positions in the New Guinea-New Ireland area. The U.S. Navy's South Pacific Area commander assumed the first mission; General MacArthur took up the latter two tasks. To support the Navy in the first task and to execute its own two tasks, SWPA created new commands, moved units closer to target areas, and continued airfield construction and reinforcement, especially at Port Moresby and at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea. The U.S. 32d and 41st Infantry Divisions began jungle training, organized in a new corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger.
A Fox Hole on Giruwa Beach.
Men of the 127th Infantry holding a position reached on 20 January.
Short of aircraft carriers after Midway, the Japanese decided to attack Port Moresby by an overland advance from Buna instead of around Milne Bay by sea. This plan dictated a push through some of the most forbidding terrain in the world. The Papuan peninsula of eastern New Guinea is dominated by the Owen Stanley Mountains, a saw-toothed jungle range reaching a height of 13,000 feet. High temperatures and humidity near the coasts contrast with biting cold above 5,000 feet. Rainfall is typically torrential and can amount to as much as 10 inches per day during the rainy season. Tangled growth requires a machete to cut through it. Knife-edged kunai grass up to 7 feet high, reeking swamps full of leeches and malarial mosquitoes, and a slippery ground surface under dripping vegetation add to the formidable obstacle course.
For the advance out of Buna the Japanese assembled a force of about 1,800 men augmented by 1,300 laborers from Rabaul and Formosa and 52 horses. This force proposed to cross Papua through the village of Kokoda, some 50 miles from Buna and over 100 miles from Port Moresby. Next to the village lay a facility highly valued by both sides: an airfield. Quickly moving inland, the Japanese met their first opposition late in the afternoon of 22 July. During the next two weeks, General Horii's troops defeated several Australian and Papuan units and took over the entire Kokoda-Buna Trail. When Horii received reinforcements on 18 August, he headed a well-supplied force of 8,OOO Imperial Japanese Army troops and 3,450 naval troops.
Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger Commanding General, I Corps, United States Army
By mid-August the two adversaries were inadvertently helping each other by relying on poor intelligence assessments. Caught off-guard by U.S. Marine landings in the Solomons, General Horii had to spread his resources over two fronts, Guadalcanal and Buna. But the Allies underestimated the Japanese determination to build up a large force at Buna and push overland to Port Moresby. Brig. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur's intelligence chief, repeatedly discounted an enemy attack through the mountains because of the difficult terrain and climate. As a result, the Allies continued reinforcing small units on the trail, and the enemy continued overrunning them.
With the Japanese well established at Buna and Kokoda, SWPA reorganized to counterattack on two fronts: along the Kokoda Trail and 200 miles east at Milne Bay. Three Australian brigades with American reinforcements strengthened the two fronts. At Milne Bay the Allies assembled a force of some 7,500 troops, including three companies of U.S. engineers and a battery of U.S. airborne antiaircraft artillery. Named Milne Force, this two-brigade concentration took positions around two Allied airfields. On the night of 25-26 August the Japanese landed 1,500 men six miles east of the airfields. Spearheaded by two light tanks, the Japanese mounted night assaults on the 26th and 27th, and reached Airstrip No. 3. Milne Force stiffened its line and then pushed the enemy into a general retreat. On 4 September the Japanese called in the Navy for evacuation. In this first Allied ground victoryand first significant American action in PapuaMilne Force killed 600 of the enemy, while losing 322 dead and 200 wounded.
On the Way to Buna: The Inland Route. Men of M Company, 128th Infantry, on the trail between Dobodura and Buna.
Along the Kokoda Trail the Allies found a different situation. Instead of continuing their drive toward the certain capture of Port Moresby, the Japanese stopped at the village of Ioribaiwa, thirty miles short of their objective. Surprised at the sudden halt, the Allies soon learned that the Japanese agreed with their own strategic view: that success on New Guinea was directly related to success on Guadalcanal. The Japanese drive against the U.S. Marine beachhead in the Solomons had been repulsed, and on 18 September General Horii received orders to withdraw to Buna for a possible reinforcement of the Imperial Japanese Army forces on Guadalcanal. Once again the enemy had given the Allies time to regroup.
General MacArthur took advantage of the victory at Milne Bay and the enemy withdrawal from the Kokoda Trail to draw up a comprehensive plan to clear New Guinea of the enemy. SWPA's 1 October plan called for a series of sweeps and envelopments along three axes of advance that would position Allied forces for an attack on Buna in mid-November. On the first axis, the 7th Australian Infantry Division would move up the main trail from Port Moresby, cross the Owen Stanley Range through Kokoda, and occupy Wairopi, only twenty-five miles from Buna. On the second axis, the American 2d Battalion of the 126th Infantry, setting out from Port Moresby, would turn inland at Kapa Kapa and move through the mountains to Jaure on a track parallel to, but thirty miles southeast of, the Australians. On the third axis, the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade, fresh from victory at Milne Bay, would sweep the north coast of the island and meet the U.S. 128th Infantry, airlifted from Port Moresby, at Wanigela. The two units would then cross Cape Nelson and stage at Embogo for the assault on enemy lines less than ten miles away.
The Old Strip, Buna, Showing Japanese Fortifications.
The 1 October plan was marked by the innovation which would characterize MacArthur's leadership throughout the Pacific War: resupply by air. Once units entered the jungled mountains, resupply became a major problem. The Australian practice of relying on the strong backs of New Guineans did not solve the problem, since the bearers usually deserted when they suspected enemy presence. The Allies settled on the airdrop. Expanding its range as fast as new airfields could be constructed, the Fifth Air Force proved invaluable in overcoming the obstacles of sea distance and rugged terrain. Crates of food and supplies were pushed out the hatches of low-flying C - 7s over breaks in the jungle ceiling. Though not perfecthungry, diseased troops sometimes saw crates of food, medicine, and ammunition fall down mountainsides just out of reachthe airdrops continued and improved as aircrews gained experience.
An innovation in resupply by sea also helped. Despite Japanese command of the seas in the Solomons-New Guinea areathe U.S. Navy had withdrawn from the area in late October after losing an aircraft carrier and seeing another badly damagedthe Allies were asked to take advantage of the shallow coastal waters of New Guinea. In their advance from Milne Bay the Allies moved troops and supplies by fishing boats, tuggers, rowboats, and even outrigger canoes.
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